Sometimes drinking wine can be like spending time with your dearest friends. I suppose that any familiar flavor, enjoyed repeatedly in the past can conjure nostalgia and contemplation, but special wines end up being more than memorable. They leave indelible marks, like the grooves in a well worn staircase betray the passage of many feet.
The wines of Chateau Musar have always been special to me, ever since I first heard a bespectacled, dimpled Serge Hochar tell his story to a group of assembled wine lovers at a wine festival. Yes, I fell for the man at the same time I fell for his quirky, dynamic wines. That’s the way it is with wine. Wines are more than flavors in the glass, they are also stories.
To Hochar, they were living beings, vessels for the energy of an entire season in the place he called home — and though he would never claim it so baldly — receptacles for a little piece of his own personality and energy.
I’d wager that no one who ever met Hochar for more than a moment forgot the experience. I enjoyed a number of conversations with him over the years, some in the seemingly most random of places. One of my favorites was stumbling across him and his son Marc at the winery’s little nook at the ProWein festival in Dusseldorf, Germany six or seven years ago. Around us swirled thousands of people and massive brands producing products that Hochar wouldn’t have even considered wine. But we stood and talked, about the wine we had tasted together at our previous encounter in San Francisco (Yarra Yering Dry Red #1), and then I was gently chastised by him (using a hilarious sexual innuendo) for taking too much wine into my mouth when tasting.
We most often use the word vivacious in the English language to describe women. Why, I have no idea. But it perfectly describes Hochar, who was always brimming with enthusiasm and passion and energy. The man was simply the life of any gathering or party in which I ever saw him, and his wines reflected that passion an energy, as well as the dynamic range of the man, who could go from ribald humor to deepest philosophy in the course of a single sentence.
Hochar’s untimely death in a tragic swimming accident on his birthday a little more than two years ago was a blow that time has only faintly blunted. Every time I taste his wines, packed as they are with life, they prove what a loss his death was to the wine world, to his home country of Lebanon, and to those who loved him.
After studying enology with the eminent Émile Peynaud in Bordeaux, Hochar took over from his father, Gaston Hochar in 1959, and began to work with the (by then 30-year-old) plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and the two local white varieties Obaideh and Merwah in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Hochar frequently claimed that it took him at least ten or twelve years to understand how to make wine the way he wanted, but then once he figured it out in the early 70’s, he hasn’t changed a thing.
Hochar made wines in Lebanon right through the country’s brutal civil war. Rather than abandon his winery as bombs fell in Beruit, Hochar chose to remain, drinking a bottle of wine quietly by himself as his neighborhood was leveled.
“I poured a whole bottle into a big glass. Every time a bomb hit, I would take a sip” he recalled.
Throughout the war from 1975 to 1990, he only missed a single vintage (1976) despite the hardships and horrors that the country endured.
While quite charismatic, Hochar did not make wines that appealed to everyone. Quite the contrary, in fact. His detractors would suggest his somewhat oxidative, un-sulfured wines show more faults than flavor. When it came to winemaking, Hochar was single-minded and driven. He made no apologies for his approach or the wines that resulted, contenting himself to sell his wines to those who appreciated them. “I don’t make wine for consistency,” he said. “I make wine for inconsistency.”
I have found his wines over the years to have two types of inconsistencies. The first, and most cherished of those are the variations from vintage to vintage. Musar’s wines are heavily vintage dependent, and more so in the decades when the war could often affect the logistics of harvest. Hochar was not always able to pick his grapes and get them to the winery when he wanted.
The second inconsistency in Musar’s wines is simply in the bottle variation with time. I believe the wines to be very consistently made, but the transport, storage and cellarage of the wines to be highly variable around the world. I’ve had absolutely pristine bottles of the wine, and some that are clearly junky. Hochar’s wines would easily fit today’s definition of natural wines, but that wasn’t a train he wanted to ride on. Nonetheless, they are living, delicate wines, and if not treated well, can rather disappoint. On the other hand, good vintages, well cellared, can be some of the most profound and moving wines you might ever care to drink, as the bottle of 1995 I have a note for below demonstrated one evening in San Francisco with a group of friends.
These days, I never pass up an opportunity to drink Chateau Musar, especially older bottles that truly demonstrate the genius of Hochar’s winemaking: as iconoclastic as the man himself and built to last. Thanks to some enthusiastic friends, I’ve had the occasion to enjoy some older vintages in the past year as well, and so I offer my notes on those wines today with a fond regard for Hochar and his family.
“Wine is another human being I like to sit and talk with. Sometimes you get hungry as you talk, other times you just talk,” said Hochar once.
I never tire of my conversations with Serge Hochar.
1989 Chateau Musar White Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Light to medium gold in color, this wine smells of honey, crushed nuts and bee pollen mixed with dried citrus peels. In the mouth, gorgeous dried lemon peel, lemon juice and chamomile flavors seem filtered through wet stones. There’s a faint tannic grip to the wine and a long finish with notes of cream sherry. Apart from the finish, little of this wine speaks of age. Great acidity and persistence. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $250. click to buy.
1993 Chateau Musar White Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, vanilla and camphor. In the mouth, toffee and dried citrus peel mix with dried herbs and a slightly bitter amaro quality. This bottle is showing its age more than it should. Great acidity. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
1998 Chateau Musar White Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of custard, orange and vanilla. In the mouth, wonderfully silky orange oil, vanilla and rainwater flavors have a bright creamy quality that is pretty darn sexy. Great acidity. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $88 click to buy.
2003 Chateau Musar White Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith, vanilla, and bee pollen, with a distinct white floral note. In the mouth, lean floral and mineral notes mix with bee pollen and exotic citrus zest. Chamomile lingers in the finish. As usual, tastes younger than some more recent vintages, including the 2005. Over time sweet citrus notes emerge. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55 click to buy.
2004 Chateau Musar White Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of tangerine oil and dried yellow flowers. In the mouth, silky, ripe vanilla and buddha’s hand citrus notes mix with candle wax and a hint of clotted cream. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55 click to buy.
2005 Chateau Musar White Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of dried honey, crushed nuts, yellow herbs, and a hint of bee pollen. In the mouth, tangy dried lemon peel, pine resin, and exotic citrus give way to a sherry-like vanilla scented finish. Brilliant acidity and a tangy kumquat sourness lingers along with the vanilla in the finish. Over time the wine smooths to sweet honey-roasted nuts and tropical fruits. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.
1982 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Cloudy ruby in color, this wine smells of earth and cedar and dried fruits. In the mouth, dried flowers, berries and forest floor flavors mix with river-mud-tannins and a bright juicy acidity. Tasted out of magnum. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
1987 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Medium ruby in the glass with a coffee-colored stain to it, this wine smells of carob and sweet cherry. In the mouth, aromatically sweet cherry, cedar, and forest floor notes have a wonderful, smooth texture and a beautiful nutmeg and camphor finish. Great acidity and balance. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $189. click to buy.
1988 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
A very cloudy dark ruby in color — highly turbid — this wine smells of forest floor and olives and dried flowers. In the mouth, wonderfully savory and salty flavors of cherry, cedar, dried flowers and a hint of barnyard are juicy and bright. Powdery tannins offer a silty residue in the mouth, with notes of sweet fruit and flowers lingering in the finish. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $300 click to buy.
1990 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Medium ruby in the glass with browning at the edges, this wine smells of forest floor, musk, and dried citrus peel. In the mouth, amazing savory herbs and a miso-like umami kick mix with dried cherry fruit and the slightest tang of volatile acidity that makes the mouth water. Phenomenal zingy brightness and a kick of sour cherry and mint in the finish. Faint powdery tannins. Electrifying. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $270. click to buy.
1995 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Medium ruby with a hint of bricking at the rim, this wine has a phenomenal herbal bouquet of mint and leather and underbrush. In the mouth, the wine is everything you want from Musar. Stunning red berry fruit, cedar, a bit of barnyard and dried flowers. Incredibly complete and delicious with a sweet salinity and faint powdery tannin that lingers as the umami and dried flower finish soars for minutes. This bottle was in perfect shape and got better over several hours. Score: around 10. Cost: $160 click to buy.
2000 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of dried cherry and dried herbs and leather. Flavors of cherry and leather have a barnyardy funk that somehow transforms into dried flowers through the finish, with herbs and something I might call the aroma of bricks drying in the sun. Great acidity and balance. Stunning in its completeness. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70 click to buy.
2004 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Dark ruby in color with a hint of brown at the rim, this wine smells of earth and leather and dried flowers. In the mouth, dried cherries, leather and dried flowers are textured with muscular, fine grained tannins. Notes of cherry and earth linger on the finish. Excellent acidity. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65 click to buy.
2007 Chateau Musar Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dried cherry, raisins, shredded carrot, and raspberry. In the mouth, cocoa powder, cedar, and dried cherries mix with crushed dried herbs and a hint of wet stone underneath. Gorgeously smooth, with powdery tannins and long finish. 13.5% alcohol Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $55 click to buy.
2012 Chateau Musar “Jeune” Red Blend, Bekkaa Valley, Lebanon
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of raisins and cocoa powder and dried cherries. In the mouth, raisins, figs, dried cherry and a hint of leather are gripped by leathery tannins as notes of dried flowers linger in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Rough and blundering compared to its companions. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $23 click to buy.